Nina Trentmann, UK Business Correspondent at Die Welt, takes a look at the recent appointment of Boris Johnson as UK Foreign Secretary and the reactions of politicians in Germany to this news, particularly in the context of future negotiation tactis between the UK and the EU.
It was a shock. German politicians, their French counterparts, EU representatives – they all shook their head in disbelief when it became known that the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, would become the UK’s new foreign minister. German TV commentators were reportedly confounded by the appointment. Others, such as the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, described the Prime Minister’s choice as a sign of the political crisis in the UK, and branded Johnson a ‘liar’ for his behaviour during the referendum campaign.
Others tuned in, commenting on Johnson’s rather undiplomatic comments about for example President Obama’s African ancestry, and the fact that Johnson had lent his voice to a campaign that was made of half-truths, to put it mildly (most of which have already been deleted from the internet). Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, stated: “To be honest, I find this outrageous. It’s not just bitter for Great Britain. It’s also bitter for the EU.”
Angela Merkel though, the German chancellor, did not comment on Theresa May’s choice. She instead called No. 10 Downing Street and invited the new UK Prime Minister to Berlin. “I think it is our duty to work quite closely with governments of allied countries“, Merkel said. “The world has enough problems so we need to make progress in foreign policy collaboration, the way we have done it in the past with Great Britain.“ Again, Merkel behaved differently than her – mostly male – colleagues.
Instead of exclaiming what a surprising choice the selection of Boris Johnson was, Merkel instead had decided to wait and see – a tactic that she mastered very early on in her political career when she slowly made her way to the top of the Christian Democratic Union, perfected later during the Eurocrisis and the Greek debt crisis..
From a German point of view, Boris Johnson’s appointment is an interesting choice. Yes, admittedly, he is a populist. He is someone that seems to lack strong political beliefs and appears to have joined the Brexit-camp because it fit his long term ambitions.
However, with the appointment of a separate Minister for Brexit and the creation of a Department of International Trade, May has made sure that Johnson’s remit will be quite limited. The real driver in Britain’s Brexit negotiations will not be the Foreign Office, but No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street as well as the Departments for Brexit and international trade. Consequently, foreign Secretary Johnson will not be involved too much in negotiating Britain’s future relationship with Europe. At international summits following the enforcement of Article 50, it will not so much be him but May and Davis representing the UK. At the same time, May has made sure that Johnson is inside government, not outside where he could have easily attacked her decision making without having to carry any responsibility himself.
He will be fairly busy in the months to come, travelling the world, trying to get the message across that although the UK has voted to leave the EU, it is not turning its back on the world. In addition to that, he will have to make sure that he does not make too many gaffes, something that he is quite known for. It remains to be seen whether Johnson will be able to curb his tongue. If he does not, he might be the first minister of this new government to be sacked. That’s at least what the bookies think.
Thus, from a German perspective, it’s not so much the appointment of Boris Johnson that is worrying. With Theresa May and Philip Hammond, her new chancellor, in charge, there is only so much damage that Boris Johnson can cause. May as well as Hammond have the reputation of being a safe pair of hands, of being reliable and reasonable
What is worrying from a German perspective though is that is one of the declared goals of the British government to try and see whether the EU is really as united as it claims. According to what I was told by a senior German government official, the British strategy revolves very much around trying to start negotiating before Article 50 is officially triggered, in order for them to see what might be had during the official negotiations
This is, from a Berlin point of view, the most dangerous development in recent days. Neither Angela Merkel nor François Hollande, the French President, nor Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, want to see any bargaining prior to the start of the negotiations. It is crucial that Europe appears united when interacting with the British government
For years and years, there has been a strong dislike for the British tactic of trying to convince a small number of European partners to campaign on their behalf. Should Theresa May´s government engage in more of this, it could cause significant problems in the future and might not bear well for the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations. As Merkel has made clear, there will be no cherry-picking during the negotiations
Thus, the best advice one might give to the new government here in the UK is to start thinking about what it wants. Does it want to retain access to the Single Market? Does it want to keep passporting, for the City of London? Or is the state of the British economy and the potential for future economic growth less important than reducing European immigration into the UK? These are fundamental questions and I guess it does not make sense to start negotiating before the British government knows where it stands on these. Any form of fiddling around, of trying to see what is to be had before officially triggering Article 50 will not go down well in European capitals, especially not in Berlin.
Nina Trentmann is the UK Business and Finance Correspondent for WELT N24 in London.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.